Mike McCulloch. (Credit: Plymouth University)

Inside the academic war on free speech

Good-quality academics are being filtered out due to an illiberal culture of ‘cancelling’ on university campuses

Artillery Row

Just weeks ago, Mike McCulloch thought his academic career might be over because he “liked” some Tweets. The next step in his employer’s investigation, scheduled for 1 July, never happened, thanks to good Samaritans and his own steadfastness. He spoke with me publicly about his experience for the first time. 

He clarifies how little he was ever told about the complaints against him.

Our conversation reveals also four problematic recent norms in academia: first, an academic career depends on personal and political matters; second, compliance is rewarded over scepticism; third, academic complaints are increasingly anti-intellectual; and fourth, logic and evidence are subordinated to feelings, even in the hardest of hard sciences.

Conflating academic and personal lives

This story begins in October 2019, when Mike McCulloch was emailed by his Head of School after a single complaint about his Twitter account. In our conversation, McCulloch clarifies that his School kept the complainant anonymous and specified no particular Tweets.

McCulloch is a Lecturer in Geomatics (the mathematics of positioning in space). His theory of quantised inertia holds promise for unifying and simplifying physics, cheap energy, and efficient space travel. He has been using Twitter since 2013 to communicate his ideas to a somewhat rarefied audience.

Occasionally, like most of us, he uses Twitter to relate outside of his discipline. He has little doubt that his political views were the foci of the first complaint. But the fault lies with complainants and enablers who think that professional and personal lives should be conflated.

Compliance over scepticism

McCulloch agreed to add to his Twitter header a statement separating his views from his employer’s. However, this wouldn’t protect his free speech for long. In January 2020, he was due to speak on physics at Leeds University, when the organizer emailed that she had just seen his Twitter feed. Some Tweets, she had decided, were “rude.” She cancelled his talk.

In our conversation, he clarifies that she neither specified how his Tweets were rude, nor which Tweets were rude. I have noticed nothing rude in his Tweets. McCulloch himself wonders whether his forthright theoretical doubts about dark matter could come across as rude.

Speaking for myself, I think this part of his story illustrates a problem I see in other disciplines. Lazy or jealous academics are using vague criticism of the scientist’s tone or style to avoid tackling the substance. This undermines the scientific posture of scepticism, of interrogating the logic and evidence of other people’s work in order to hold accountable, encourage rigour, and revise and refine. Criticising a scientist’s style is a cheap shot.

Good scientists are being filtered out, as their seniors reward those who won’t buck the system, who support the consensus

In consequence, ironically, good scientists are being filtered out, as their seniors reward those who won’t buck the system, who support the consensus, and comply with the dirty tricks.

Think of the ongoing replicability crisis. The system doesn’t encourage you to suffer the wrath of the academic whose work you challenge, at least not until you are already tenured or otherwise secure. Unfortunately, you’ll struggle to get tenured or otherwise secure unless you are compliant for most of your career.

Academic complaints are increasingly anti-intellectual

The organiser cancelled McCulloch’s talk at Leeds. McCulloch complained to the Vice-Chancellor and Head of Physics at Leeds: he characterised her email as “intellectual bullying.” His talk was reinstated: he delivered it later, by Zoom, given the Covid-19 emergency.

McCulloch was in a tough spot when he came up with “intellectual bullying.” I agree he was bullied, but I wouldn’t characterise it as intellectual. For me, the organiser’s complaint was anti-intellectual, in two ways.

First, “rude” is a peculiarly vague term to use, even before one fails to define or specify any rudeness. Thus, her argument was unfalsifiable, separate to the other problems, such as unwillingness to offer argument or evidence.

Second, even if McCulloch was rude by Tweet, it does not bear on the merits of the science on which he was asked to speak. The mannered way in which he speaks was already evidenced in publicly-available videos of him speaking

Feelings before logic and evidence

On 6th June 2020, McCulloch’s Head of School politely informed him that an anonymous person had forwarded some Tweets to his University’s Equalities Team. The complaint was about McCulloch “liking” Tweets expressing “All Lives Matter,” “Gender has a scientific basis,” and his opposition to mass immigration.

The complainant could have contacted McCulloch to check what he meant or what his arguments are, but instead went to his employer directly. Then this person added personal misinterpretations of these Tweets as evidence for hate of blacks, women, and immigrants. Then this anonymous person added a lie: a claim that his writings on physics had been blacklisted by journals.

The meaning of “all lives matter” is in the opposite direction to racism. The necessity for stating the obvious sickens me

McCulloch cannot know what motivated that person, because anonymity grants unaccountability.

Yet we can infer that the complainant is governed by feelings, not logic or evidence. Misinterpretations of Tweets may be normative these days, but they’re still ridiculous to an objective scientist, lawyer, or linguist. For instance, the meaning of “all lives matter” is in the opposite direction to racism. The necessity for stating the bleeding obvious sickens me. That’s before I get into the normative problems of inferring beliefs from writings, or airing only one interpretation without considering alternative theories.

Even though such misinterpretations are ridiculous in logical or empirical terms, they are consequential in the feelings-led media, and even in employment law and criminal law. Employers hold on to vaguely felt accusations as excuses to get rid of employees for unrelated reasons. And hundreds of police officers are dedicated to cautioning people against, for instance, “misgendering” on Twitter.

The happy ending, except…

Later in June, McCulloch was told by his employer that he would be investigated given a complaint that his Twitter behaviour had not changed. A senior colleague was scheduled to decide on 1 July whether to escalate to a disciplinary hearing, which could lead to termination of his employment.

Pessimistically, McCulloch posted the news of the investigation on Twitter. His audience ballooned. Some subscribers offered legal advice. The Free Speech Union (set up by Toby Young in February) also offered help. A lawyer volunteered to represent, and the Free Speech Union pledged to fund, if necessary. One day after McCulloch’s legal representative asked his university what rule he had broken, it dropped its investigation.

Free Speech Union logo (Credit: FSU)

How long can any of us last in the age of hysteria? I should state that I know many academics who have come off worse than McCulloch: some have been placed under investigation without being allowed to know the complaint; some have been told the complaint but not allowed to defend themselves; some were fired at the same time as the complaint was revealed. In my own case, I was a victim of progressive defunding of my courses, a pernicious tactic that is impossible for the victim to counter (who is going to criticise a university for saving money?) The problem is widespread but few admit to being victims: even if vindicated, a slur or a missed promotion can ruin a career.

On the hopeful side, McCulloch’s legal lessons could help the rest of us. His legal advice was that the Human Rights Act 1998 obliges British publicly-funded organisations, and thus universities, to protect their employees’ freedom of speech.

Yet McCulloch and I agreed in our conversation that the Human Rights Act is not sufficient: its protections need to be extended to all employees, preferably by a constitutional item similar to America’s First Amendment. 

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